PLUSA and Some California Plates.
Quoting from last month’s History installment, allow me to remind our readers that the equipment used for both training and in competition often wasn’t safe. Steve Baldwin, a very successful long time competitive powerlifter and friend from Memphis, Tennessee who has an official 628 squat to his credit at 181 pounds, offered some comments after reading the June article. Those like Elite Fitness honcho Jim Wendler, who told me that after his reading of Part 12, as much as he already appreciated his equipment, “I was ready to kiss my Monolift and bench press” may be taken aback by Steve’s description of what passed for “competition conditions” in the squat.
“Thanks Ken! This is another great article and I can really relate to it. In April 1979 I almost seriously injured myself squatting at the Chattanooga Open. The minimum height of the racks required the lifter to be at least 5’10″. Crates were used to step up on to enable the shorter lifters to unrack the bar for the squat. I still couldn’t clear one of the racks and a spotter who was trying to be helpful lifted the end of the bar. Of course that threw me off balance and I took 2-3 steps laterally to recover and almost fell in the process. Some of the poor substandard equipment we used could easily have been catastrophic! In my first meet in 1972 the only lifters who wore lifting singlets were Marine Corp. lifters Paul Woods and Gary Perkins. Everyone else wore t-shirts (plain white) and gym shorts.”
Steve and I overlapped in our lifting careers and often converse about “the old days” and the many individuals we were fortunate to meet. For those who missed the “Golden Era” of the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, I wanted to give an accurate picture and “feel” of the sport’s early days. None of my commentary should be seen as negative as my memories of early competitions and especially training are wonderful. The equipment for the most part seemed adequate at the time we placed ourselves beneath rather significant weight relative to the structural integrity of those under built racks and benches, though more than a few were obviously dangerous. The funny or bizarre memory is that despite recognizing the danger of some of our equipment, we utilized it, perhaps with trepidation, because there was no other way to complete our training!
Anyone bothering to read the commentary about my experiences with strength training, weight training, “lifting stuff,” or powerlifting as a sport on an equipment internet site such as ELEIKOUSA.COM already knows an awful lot about strength training, weight training, “lifting stuff,”, and powerlifting. That means they also know that Mike Lambert and his POWERLIFTING USA MAGAZINE is the word, the final word in the sport of powerlifting and since 1977, has been the only continuous literary publication for the sport. Mike has been a personal friend for decades and yes, it’s so long I would have to give directed thought as to how many years it actually has been. I was fortunate to be able to help him when he was a civilian employee of the United States Navy and wanted to publish a “powerlifting newsletter.” For those who have copies of the very first issues of PLUSA, it no doubt seems as if the “magazines” were run off on a mimeograph machine. They have that look and that “feel” because they were in fact run off on a mimeograph machine in the basement of Mike’s parents’ house! What made PLUSA different was the fact that Mike was a competitive powerlifter who loved the sport and had a great passion for it, was exceptionally intelligent, and reflected those very qualities in every issue including the inaugural one. Even when some of those first issues had the “More From Ken Leistner” column, a commentary or editorial piece about the politics of the sport, written by Ken Leistner, and three additional articles from Ken Leistner, it was obvious that the magazine belonged to Mike. He was insightful and bright enough to make a presentation that allowed every lifter to read his publication and feel as if he or she was a part of things and it wasn’t just the inane ramblings of the publisher and his friend. I wrote for PLUSA every month for over twenty-two continuous years taking only a brief few months respite in the late 1980’s. In the mid-2000’s, I contributed a few articles as a specific individual or subject interested me or when I believed someone in the strength sports was deserving of special recognition so it has been a very lengthy relationship. My “retirement” from the pages of PLUSA came because I believed that I had written all I could regarding training for the three specific lifts and certainly all I could that would have been of interest to the younger generation of lifters. Unfortunately, the present group of lifters, competitive or “for fun” powerlifters, seems to crave much more than the basics of training, the same basics that for an extremely long time, served to produce many world records and a couple of generations of extraordinarily powerful competitors. Mike and I have remained in contact and continue as friends as we have watched our families grow up.
History Supplement: More Benching in California
The various muscle magazines allowed those of us in New York to have a reasonable knowledge of some of the “name” lifters in California. Some were no more than “names,” just a listing on paper linked to their lifting numbers because photos of their feats had not been published. The local New Yorkers at the higher echelons were known on sight for the most part, to those involved in the sport, but to no one else because no matter how important we may have believed our training, lifting numbers, and muscular development to be, most serious, hard core gym denizens walked around as complete unknowns. California and the so-called “California bodybuilding lifestyle” had a certain romantic attraction to those snowbound on the East Coast. This was the direct effect of the fantasies produced by the muscle magazines that touted “fun in the sun,” made more glorious if one was bulging with developed muscle or possessed the ability to bench press 450 pounds. It also seemed that any well developed bodybuilder or half-assed strong powerlifter based in California had their own fan club of followers, at least as depicted in the magazines. The reality of “the lifestyle” for many was of course, sleeping in one’s car for months at a time, big name contest winners posing for nude or semi-nude “artistic” photos in order to earn enough money to eat hamburger on a daily basis, or the necessity of working more than one physically draining job in order to have money for gym dues and a protein shake. These stark and dreary facts were rarely discussed and certainly never hinted at in the magazines.
Our focus when searching information related to the West Coast “scene” resided with the powerlifters and less so with the bodybuilders as we were into “big and strong.” Pat Casey was “the man” in part because he was the biggest and the strongest lifter we were aware of. With the magazines as the only source of West Coast training information and contest results, it was a monthly rush to the newsstand to see how much the phenomenal Casey had bench pressed. We were quick to note that he was the first to bench press 600 pounds and debunking some of the trash talk in a few of the New York area gyms that he was a one-lift-wonder, the first to squat 850 pounds. In what was a new and growing sport, how could Pat not be the main man? In the mid-1980’s I caught the ire of bench press specialist, and to his credit, bench press great Ted Arcidi. In response to a column I wrote putting forth my opinion that Pat was the greatest bench presser of all time, Mr. Arcidi mailed me a letter indicating that in addition to my lack of a minimal degree of obvious intelligence, he was rightfully entitled to “the greatest of all time” label because his maximum bench press was higher than Pat’s. As this predated the use of the bench press specialty shirts, this was not a consideration in the formation of my personal opinion and as a subsequent article detailed, I believed that Pat’s ground breaking lifts, the aura he possessed, and the influence he had throughout the entire sport clearly placed him above all others. I could have included Doug Young on the list above Mr. Arcidi also, in part because Doug’s lifting, other worldly physique, and his courageous television performance at the 1977 World Championships (which has what amounts to a cult-like You Tube following I am told) inspired so many lifters to either be involved with or be more serious about competitive powerlifting.
Of course, none of the above mattered much. In the grand scheme of the iron sports, relatively few read my comments, fewer still knew who Pat Casey, Doug Young, or Ted Arcidi were, nor did anyone outside of what was truly a cult activity care. Despite the explosion of exposure of powerlifting, bench pressing, Arnold Expo and FIBO type contests, the quest for greater lifts remains a rather isolated pursuit.
Interestingly Mike’s recollection of our first meeting predates mine. He believes we first made contact at a meet in Southern California in the late 1960’s. Perhaps his memory was and remains sharper than mine. In the days of Powerlifting’s early meets, those of us who were actually going on stage in front of people to bench press, squat, and deadlift, and in that order, understood that we were breaking new ground and were on the cutting edge of a wonderful sport. There was an air of friendship at every meet, even if heated rivals were facing off. When the Arizona lifters led by Jack Barnes and John Kantor came in for a Los Angeles area contest for example, the lifters from Bill “Peanuts” West’s garage, the Lee Phillips group from the Pasadena Y, and Costa Mesa’s Bob Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym team played host, shared training information, and helped spot each other’s warm-ups. I had seen little of this attitude at most bodybuilding shows that I had attended. There were certainly friendly rivalries, but in New York City, the venue with the most boisterous yet supportive fans, one could at times feel a definite undercurrent of hostility among some competitors. At the odd lift contest that I have referred to throughout this Eleikousa discourse about my perspective on the iron game, especially as noted in last month’s Part 12 installment, there were many bodybuilders competing as lifters. The atmosphere was much less tense and a lot friendlier at this lifting contest than I had witnessed at physique shows but paled to what went on backstage and in the warm-up room of the first California powerlifting “show” I wandered into.
As was typical for the East Coast, the barbell set used at the New York City odd lift meet was a York model. With Olympic weightlifting the major iron sport in the metropolitan area and with many of the lifting officials and referees having close ties to Bob Hoffman and York, this was to be expected. At my first California meet, just as I had noticed when training at both Bill Pearl’s Manchester Avenue Gym in what is now referred to as “South Central LA” and at Zuver’s Gym, I could immediately note a difference in the bars that the heavy lifting was performed with. I was never sure of the brand name of the bars but the plates were clearly not from York nor from Jackson. In almost every Southern California gym we visited, and there were many, the plates were usually a mix of those marked BFCO and Paramount. Zuver of course, had his famous custom plates, casted in molds he had made that featured a heavily muscled strongman figure in denominations of 25, 50, 100, and 150 pounders! In the Costa Mesa house-converted-to-gym, we even had use of some
pairs of 200 pound plates! The Zuver plates were often used at area lifting contests and just as often “borrowed” by competitors at the conclusion of the meet to be incorporated into their own plate collection. Many of the photos in Muscle Power and Muscle Builder Magazines show Bill West and his garage gang lifting tremendous weights with “Zuver’s” and the distinctive strongman mold in the middle of the plate, easily recognizable on the bar.
In 1974, I spent part of the year driving the tractor trailer that was owned and operated by Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries. As the holder of a Commercial Driver’s License, and with the company short of drivers, I was pressed into service to deliver and install the relatively new-to-the-scene Nautilus equipment. I would deliver, install, and then instruct the institutional users on the correct operation of each piece. Belatedly, I discovered upon a trip to the Los Angeles Rams facility, that the BFCO plates that were so often seen in California, were those of the Bell Foundry. Witnessing perhaps the hottest and dirtiest of labor I had seen in many years, I watched plates being casted, cleaned, and drilled by a host of workers that had to be wishing they were doing any other type of work. The foundry, staying in business despite the Environmental Protection Agency dictates that caused a closing of up to ninety percent of U.S. foundries within a three year period, made barbell plates only as a means to fill “dead time” after the manufacturing of cast iron machine parts and other necessities. This was typical for any foundry with the barbell business usually an afterthought or “fill in” during slow times in the shop. Bell casted plates for a number of “private labels.” These included some of the equipment manufacturers on the West Coast as they could save on shipping costs by having this work done locally. I drove with Dick Wall who had spent many years working for Paramount before bolting for what was a ground floor opportunity at Nautilus.
A former Mr. Utah physique champion as well as Utah’s heavyweight Olympic weightlifting champion, a common “double” into the mid-1960’s when barbell enthusiasts began to specialize, Dick knew everyone on the West Coast that was in any way involved with weight training. In order to make additional income, we had permission to back-haul materials. We would back-haul everything from sanitized garbage for the Florida pig farmers, soap and industrial cleaning supplies, and barbers’ equipment, the latter from iron game legend Johnny Gibson of Arizona who claimed that niche as a sideline specialty. With the EPA’s mandated closure of so many domestic foundries throughout 1974, it was very difficult to obtain weight plates, thus Dick and I loaded up the unpainted Bell Foundry plates, and sold them to the gym owners we knew as we crossed the country either completing our delivery rounds or returning to our Lake Helen, Florida headquarters. For all I knew about equipment and barbell plates, it wasn’t until watching the casting process and handling those BFCO plates that I truly understood the quality that some had and many lacked.